Jennifer Huang Q&A

July 12, 2021
Jennifer Huang is a young poet already doing amazing things.

“I wouldn’t say feelings of being Other are a constant ingredient to my artistic life; instead, perhaps a search for stability, safety, ease, joy and a return to some semblance of myself. Poetry is what helps me remember that even in my fragments, I am whole. This inner reckoning is what guides me more than any other type of gaze.”

Congratulations on winning the Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry. It must be exciting to know that Milkweed Editions will be putting out “Return Flight” next year. 

I submitted my manuscript to the prize with no expectations of winning, just because I know how much of a gamble poetry competitions can be. Receiving the call was definitely a big, surreal dream come true.

I like the fun you have with language. I think of the phrases “I myth a mess of myself” and “I try to muster and master” in your poem about motherhood. Do you strive to have both a light and deep touch?

With “Poem For Giving Birth,” I was inspired by the sound of the letter M and the sensuality of the mmmm sound—that deep kind of humming. So I followed it and tried to play with it as much as I could. I think that’s where the light touch comes in, and it’s what I love so much about poetry—the opportunity to play with and bend language, words, and meaning. I guess, oftentimes, this playfulness is what contrasts what you call the deep touch—what I identify as the (sometimes-insatiable) desire to write about things that are difficult to language and say. I don’t think I began writing striving for this contrast consciously, but overtime, I realized that it’s what I gravitate towards. For me, one rarely lives without the other.

Some of your poems come from a place of trying to reconcile trauma. Are poems a sanctuary for you? Who were the first poets to explode into meaning for you?

Poems are definitely a sanctuary, because for me, poetry is tied to spirituality. The first book of poems I remember owning and reading was The Essential Rumi. When I was maybe in middle school, I would ask the book a question and flip to a page to try to find an answer. The Complete Poems by Walt Whitman was also formative—I remember rereading “Continuities” in high school as if it were scripture, something sacred to follow. Then, in undergrad, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds broke my world open. It was the first time I read poems that spoke directly to my Asian American identity—it helped me start to believe that there was room in the world for my words and story, too.

You’ve said that one of your goals as a poet is to see the past clearly yet drift from it, and receive the present with gratitude. Do other art forms do something similar for you?

Oh, definitely. I think many forms of art can act as this kind of a time machine, but one that I think of in particular is music. When I hear a song that I used to play on repeat, it automatically brings me back to that time and what I was experiencing—it’s so vivid and yet also removed and distant. The song becomes a conduit for the past and present to intermingle.

You have a poem where you write of wanting to drop a textbook on your arm to get out of practicing violin, and in the same poem describing how you can still feel the sting from when your grandfather hit your mother. The reader knows this because you say in the beginning “I wanted this poem to be about …” How did the direct address take shape in your poem?

While writing and revising “Drift,” the direct address took shape after I realized that there was tension going on between what I, as a person, wanted the poem to be about and what the poem actually wanted to be about. When I stopped resisting the poem, I ended up surprising myself with what came out, which I think is more nuanced and complex than what I started with.

You’re also a book publicist. Do you enjoy wearing that hat as well? 

I love wearing my hat as a book publicist. I was just talking to someone about this the other day—I think the process of being a writer and publishing a book can be difficult emotionally, financially, physically, etc. Being a publicist and advocating for other writers and literary organizations—connecting with other humans in the literary world—actually gives me some more of that juice to keep going and have faith in the process. My favorite part about publicity and marketing is connecting different people together through our shared love of literature and stories.

You have Taiwanese heritage and have lived in many places, including Maryland and Michigan. Has the feeling of Other been a constant ingredient in your artistic life? How do you use it?

I remember learning the term Other and Otherness, and it put some language to my experiences of being dehumanized and objectified. The ways people—more specifically and most often cis-het white men—regarded me not for who I am but for what and who I might represent. I wouldn’t say feelings of being “Other” are a constant ingredient to my artistic life; instead, perhaps a search for stability, safety, ease, joy and a return to some semblance of myself. Poetry is what helps me remember that even in my fragments, I am whole. This inner reckoning is what guides me more than any other type of gaze.

What is next for you?

What’s next for me is up in the air. I’ve been in a fallow period with writing, but I can slowly feel the wheels turning on some poems and a novel I started writing last Fall. I’m also expanding my freelance practice and feeling open to wherever the wind blows me next. I’ve always felt like my life had to have a particular path and trajectory, and this is the first time I feel like there is no path—or that I can make it whatever I want it to be. I’m excited (and sometimes scared!) to feel into that.